THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Gillette Reporter, Search Organizer to Take Part in Production of Missing Persons Show

Wyoming Truth contributor Jennifer Kocher and local activist Stacy Koester will be interviewed for Never Seen Again, a Paramount Plus series

Stacy Koester advocates for justice by leading community searches in the Gillette area to recover evidence in the Irene Gakwa case. As a result of her work, Koester has been interviewed on numerous local and national media outlets. (Courtesy photo from Stacy Koester)

By Ellen Fike

Special to the Wyoming Truth

A reporter and citizen investigator will be interviewed in Gillette this week for a docuseries that covers missing persons.

Wyoming Truth contributor Jennifer Kocher and Gillette resident Stacy Koester will both be interviewed for Never Seen Again, which airs on Paramount Plus. The series examines missing person cases through interviews with the individual’s loved ones and local journalists who have covered the cases.

Jennifer Kocher’s groundbreaking coverage of the Irene Gakwa case–“The Search for Irene” series published by the Wyoming Truth–has brought national media attention to the nursing student’s mysterious disappearance from Gillette last winter. (Courtesy photo from Jennifer Kocher)

The episode featuring Kocher and Koester will focus on the disappearance of Irene Gakwa, a Kenyan woman who moved to Gillette with her boyfriend, Nathan Hightman, in July 2021. Gakwa was last seen by her family on a video call on Feb. 24, 2022.

Hightman, 39, was arrested in May 2022 and charged with five felonies, including the unauthorized use of Gakwa’s credit card. He has pleaded not guilty to all of them and will stand trial in April. Hightman also has been named a “person of interest” in Gakwa’s disappearance, according to police.

The Gakwa episode, which is being taped Thursday and Friday, will air later this year, according to director Anthony Cantor.       

Both Koester, who organizes community searches for evidence, and Kocher, whose reporting for the Wyoming Truth has brought national media attention to Gakwa’s case, said they hope the episode will lead to more tips about her mysterious disappearance and possible whereabouts.      

“If you look at multiple missing women cases that have captured national media attention, a lot of them are white women,” Koester told the Wyoming Truth.  “Irene, being a young, Black woman, deserves the same media coverage that was seen in the Gabby Petitio case, for example.”

By participating in the episode, Kocher hopes she can help bring answers to Gakwa’s family, who have been trying in vain to find their daughter for nearly a year.

“As a journalist covering her case, I don’t think I truly understood the heartbreak of her family until I interviewed her father in Kenya,” Kocher said. “His grief was palpable, and he and his family just want answers to what happened to Irene. The silver lining in this otherwise horrible situation is people like Stacy, who have never met Irene,  have stepped up … and refuse to stop searching until they find out what happened.”

Kocher noted the community spirit that’s been at work since last summer, when Koester started organizing group searches and drawing volunteers from hundreds of miles away.

“From the volunteers searching to the conviction of law enforcement to find answers to the hotels and restaurants who gladly hang posters of Irene on their doors and windows, everyone wants to find Irene,” she said.      

Kocher and Koester will take the Never Seen Again production team on a search on horseback along old Highway 59 in the Gillette area to show the crew the area the searchers have been covering to try and find Gakwa. 

Cantor said the production team behind Never Seen Again intends to show their subjects as fully realized people, rather than as a statistic or as someone in another tragic story.

“This [show] isn’t being run as crass entertainment,” he said. “This is being run with a sense of responsible contribution. We have to tell these stories in a way where you understand the arc of this person’s life and the people who are left behind, who still love this person who is gone. We want viewers to see them as real people who had real lives and real families.”

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